By Todd Hill
It’s difficult to watch the 1931 film version of “Frankenstein” today without being consistently reminded of “Young Frankenstein,” the Mel Brooks spoof that has only grown in stature since it was released in 1974.
This isn’t to fault James Whale, who competently directed the 1931 classic, and who of course played the horror story as straight as it deserved to be played. Brooks, along with his terrific cast led by Gene Wilder, simply recognized that earlier picture’s superb potential for comedy. And, arguably, “Young Frankenstein” is the better movie as a result. So why bother catching up with the original?
“Frankenstein,” a Universal production, followed on the heels of the company’s “Dracula” by just a few months, and together the two titles inaugurated Universal’s decades-long reputation as the go-to studio for monster movies. The film is the stuff of Hollywood legend, which may not render the prospect of watching a picture that’s nearly 90 years old any more enticing. But for anyone with an affection for classic Hollywood, it’s necessary viewing.
Do we really need a plot synopsis? Perhaps, if only to clear up a few misconceptions that have arisen since Mary Shelley wrote the novel “Frankenstein” way back in 1816. Whale’s motion picture, as early as it was, was not the first filmic treatment of the story, merely the first with sound, and there have of course been countless versions of the horror classic since then, many of which get this one basic fact wrong — Frankenstein is the name of the doctor who creates the monster, not the monster itself, which is nameless. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way ….
Little space need be devoted to the screen acting in this “Frankenstein,” which was standard for its era, by which I mean unremarkable. The best performance in the movie belongs to Boris Karloff, as the monster, and he didn’t even have any lines. But that’s certainly not to shortchange Karloff’s performance, which wasn’t only the most memorable of his long career; it also sealed into our cultural consciousness how the monster should be portrayed forevermore.
Much has been written about how Karloff instilled the monster with a scintilla of humanity. Well, maybe, if this is in reference to the scene in which the monster tenderly plays a game with a little girl (Marilyn Harris) that ends with him throwing her into a lake to drown. Karloff’s portrayal was likely more sensitive than anything Bela Lugosi could’ve contributed. The “Dracula” star screen-tested for Frankenstein’s monster, and was either insulted by the oafish nature of the character and turned it down, or was rejected by the film’s producers after they laughed at Lugosi in the monster’s makeup. Choose which story sounds more believable to you.
Another clarification — Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant in the film is named Fritz, not Igor (the mad scientist had no assistant at all in Shelly’s book). By the time a second film sequel to Whale’s film arrived in 1939, the assistant’s name had been changed to Ygor, and was played by none other than Lugosi, who reprised the role in yet another sequel in 1942. Lugosi finally got around to portraying Frankenstein’s monster in 1943’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.”
True to its title, Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein” spends most of its time on its title character, the mad scientist Henry, played by Colin Clive, whose madness subsides almost as soon as it becomes apparent that his experiment is a botch. Maybe the failure is due to the fact that Fritz stole the “abnormal” brain of a criminal from a classroom laboratory, or perhaps this is a lesson to Dr. Frankenstein and all the rest of us that we have no business playing God.
Indeed, probably the film’s most controversial line is one that was cut out of the film for years. Dr. Frankenstein, on an emotional, somewhat crazed high after reanimating a corpse courtesy of a powerful lightning storm, proclaims that this is what it must feel like to be God. Perhaps he’s right. The remark was and remains offensive to many people, but wonderfully describes Frankenstein’s state of mind, at least until his experiment bashes down the door of the abandoned watchtower housing the doctor’s laboratory and lumbers out into the German countryside.
In a cinematic flash, Frankenstein then turns his attention to marrying his sweetheart, played by a somewhat daft Mae Clarke, best known for having a grapefruit pressed into her face by James Cagney in 1931’s “The Public Enemy.” It’s left to Clarke to spout some of “Frankenstein’s” dopiest lines, but then taking a monster movie’s screenplay to task can be something of a fool’s errand.
Whale’s several directorial flourishes on the film deserve to be singled out for praise. The picture opens on a graveside service, with the doctor and his assistant waiting in the wings to dig up the freshly buried body, in a sequence heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Multiple settings are richly Gothic, from the aforementioned watchtower to the windmill in which the enraged villagers finally entrap the monster and burn him to death (so wait, if the monster dies then how could there be sequels?).
Universal Pictures very quickly comprehended the staying power of monster movies, which more than anything likely explains why the “Frankenstein” characters have lasted. As for subtext, well, take your pick. Whale was openly gay, and many writers have identified a homosexual subtext in “Frankenstein” and especially the director’s 1935 follow-up “Bride of Frankenstein,” which is a bit of a stretch, although the latter film is wonderfully campy.
Certainly, today’s audiences may find a corollary between Dr. Frankenstein’s failed attempt to create a man and our contemporary struggles with the unintended effects of many technologies. But if “Frankenstein” has anything to say it simply mirrors what was on Mary Shelley’s mind in 1816. The pursuit of knowledge, while ordinarily a worthy endeavor, can quickly go bad if undertaken for the wrong reasons.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.